“Never underestimate the power of your dreams and the influence of the human spirit. We are all the same in this notion. The potential for greatness lives within each of us” (as cited in “Wilma Rudolph Biography,” n.d.). These are the words of Wilma Rudolph, an American athlete whose amazing life and remarkable career inspired many people. Indeed, she knows what she’s taking about, as she successfully overcame life’s struggles and reached her full potential for greatness. This research paper aims to discuss the life, career, achievements and legacy of Wilma Rudolph.
On June 23, 1940, Wilma Glodean Rudolph was born in St. Bethlehem, Tennessee (Roberts, 2008). She grew up in Clarksville, Tennessee. Her parents were Ed and Blanche Rudolph (Women in History, 2008).
Her father was a railroad porter and handyman, while her mother worked as a maid for rich Caucasian families (Women in History, 2008; “Wilma Rudolph,” 2008). Wilma was the 20th child in a family of 22 children (“Wilma Rudolph,” 2008).
This is because prior to her father’s marriage to his mother, he already had 14 children (Lovett, 1997). Despite their parents’ hard work, the Rudolph family remained poor. The 1940s was a rather difficult time for numerous Americans; the Great Depression rendered many people unemployed and homeless (Women in History, 2008). The Rudolph family was part of this period; because life was hard, they had to improvise, using flour sacks to make dresses for the girls (Women in History, 2008).
In 1963, Rudolph was married to Robert Eldridge, her high school sweetheart (Women in History, 2008). They had four children, which consisted of two boys and two girls, namely: Yolanda, Djuana, Robert and Xurry (Lovett, 1997). Rudolph and Eldridge were later divorced (Women in History, 2008).
As a result of her premature birth, Rudolph only weighed 4.5 pounds (Women in History, 2008). At the time of her birth, there was racial segregation. The local hospital could not admit Wilma’s mother because it was for Caucasians only. In Clarksville, there is a single African-American doctor present, but due to financial constraints, Rudolph and her mother could not see that doctor either (Women in History, 2008). Her mother did to her what any other dedicated mother would have done; she took care of her daughter and nursed her to health for every illness she endured. At the tender age of four, Wilma suffered from double pneumonia and scarlet fever (Owens, 1976). Other illnesses she suffered included “chicken pox, measles, whooping cough and polio” (Lovett, 1997). She also suffered from mumps (Women in History, 2008).
Among all the illness that struck Rudolph, polio was the worst. They noticed that Wilma’s left leg and foot was slowly being malformed. Her mother’s efforts did not suffice to remedy her daughter’s condition, so they were prompted to see the doctor. They later found out that it was polio, and the doctor believed Rudolph would never be able to walk (Women in History, 2008). Rudolph said: “My doctors told me I would never walk again. My mother told me I would. I believed my mother” (as cited in “Wilma Rudolph Biography,” n.d.). Indeed, her mother knew Rudolph would walk and was not discouraged by the doctor’s prognosis. She discovered that Rudolph could be treated in a Nashville medical college for African-Americans called Meharry Hospital (Women in History, 2008). Despite the 50-mile distance, her mother brought her to the hospital two times a week for two years (Women in History, 2008). After Rudolph’s two year treatment, she learned how to walk with a leg brace made of metal. She was only six years old (Lovett, 1997). When asked about her experience with the brace, Rudolph had this to say: “I spent most of my time trying to figure out how to get them off. However, when you come from a large, wonderful family, there’s always a way to achieve your goals” (as cited in “Wilma Rudolph Biography,” n.d.).
Aside from the brace, the doctors also advised that therapy would be extremely helpful in healing Rudolph’s leg (Owens, 1976). In the hospital, Rudolph received water and heat therapy. Her therapy, however, was not confined inside the hospital. Even after a long day of work, her mother still found the time to massage her daughter’s leg when Rudolph was asleep (Owens, 1976). Rudolph’s massage therapy did not stop with her mother. Three of Wilma’s sisters also learned to massage her leg, a skill they all learned from their mother (Owens, 1976). Her brothers also offered moral support, as they encouraged her to continually fight her recovery (Women in History, 2008).
After wearing a leg brace for a long time, Rudolph had to wear a “high-topped shoe” for leg support (“Wilma Rudolph,” 2008). Her corrective shoe did not hinder the young Wilma from playing sports, specifically basketball. Back then, basketball consisted in putting a ball in a peach basket elevated and attached to a pole (Owens, 1976). That pole was installed when Rudolph was eleven (Roberts, 2007). According to her mother, “After that, it was basketball, basketball, basketball” (as cited in Roberts, 2007). Wearing her corrective shoe, Rudolph played basketball with her brothers. In the words of Owens (1976), “she would dribble and cut, stop and go, jump for the ball and spring into the air as she shot.”
At age twelve, Rudolph finally walked without braces or corrective shoes. Amazingly, she could run as well. Her mother arrived home one day, and found her playing basketball with her siblings in the backyard. However, her mother noticed that her daughter was barefoot (“Wilma Rudolph,” 2008). Rudolph was so engrossed with playing that she barely noticed the restoration of her legs (Owens, 1976).
Because of her crippling condition, Rudolph began her education at home (Women in History, 2008). She was taught by the members of her large family. At age seven, she officially attended school. During that time, Tennessee and all the other states in the South had segregated schools; Caucasian and African-Americans cannot and did not go to the same schools. Despite the same amount of taxes collected from both groups, African-American schools were inferior to its Caucasian counterparts. These schools were “poorly funded,” which meant there were not enough books and classrooms for the students, nor were there enough teachers (Women in History, 2008).
Like her sister Yolanda, Rudolph also joined the basketball team in junior high (Women in History, 2008). However, for the first three years, Coach Clinton Gray did not allow her to play. It was only in her sophomore year when she was allowed to play as starting guard. Wilma acquired the nickname “Skeeter” from Coach Gray (Roberts, 2007). Coach Gray once told her: “You’re little, you’re fast and you always get in the way” (as cited in Roberts, 2007). Soon, she was playing for the state; she got 49 points in a single game, a record for Tennessee (Roberts, 2007). Rudolph’s start in basketball eventually gave way to her track career, as Coach Ed Temple saw her during a state basketball competition. Burt High School, which Rudolph attended, did not have finances to maintain a track team; because of this, Coach Temple invited her to attend a summer sports camp at Tennessee State University (Lovett, 1997).
Rudolph graduated from high school, and attended Tennessee State University on a full scholarship (Women in History, 2008). Because of her track career, she had to stop studying for a year. Still, she came back and graduated with a Bachelor’s Degree in Education in 1963 (Women in History, 2008).
Career in Sports
According to Rudolph, “I walked with braces until I was at least nine years old. My life wasn’t like the average person who grew up and decided to enter the world of sports” (as cited in “Wilma Rudolph Biography,” n.d.). After an extremely difficult childhood, no one would ever think that Wilma was capable of doing sports. Indeed, she did, and was successful too.
Coach Edward S. Temple was a referee for a Clarksville basketball game in 1955 (Lovett, 1997). Coach Temple was the coach for the Tigerbelles Women’s Track Club at the Tennessee State University (TSU) (Lovett, 1997). The Tigerbelles was the “most internationally accomplished athletic team” in Tennessee (Lovett, 1997). There, Coach Temple saw this “long, skinny-legged teenage basketball player,” and saw her potential to be a sprinter (Lovett, 1997). The person Coach temple saw was Rudolph. He then wasted no time inviting the then 14-year-old to participate in his summer camp (Lovett, 1997).
Rudolph did attend the said summer camp, and enjoyed it immensely. Rudolph said, “I loved the feeling of freedom in running, the fresh air, the feeling that the only person I’m competing with is me” (as cited in “Wilma Rudolph Biography,” n.d.). She enjoyed running so much that even if she was still in high school, she had already been attending college practices under Coach Temple’s supervision (Roberts, 2007). Those practices happened everyday. Rudolph narrates, “I ran and ran and ran every day, and I acquired this sense of determination, this sense of spirit that I would never, never give up, no matter what else happened” (as cited in “Wilma Rudolph Biography,” n.d.).
Rudolph’s success as an athlete was also dependent on Coach Temple’s hard work and determination. He was a sociology instructor by profession, but he was unpaid as a coach (Roberts, 2007). He used his own means and resources to allow his sprinters to train and meet. He drove them in his own vehicle. It was also he who was responsible for lining the school track, which used to be “an unmarked and unsurfaced dirt oval” (Roberts, 2007). Coach Temple may be dedicated, but that does not mean he was lenient. For every minute that girls were late for practice, he let them run an extra lap (Roberts, 2007). In one instance, Rudolph was 30 minutes late for because she overslept; Coach Temple made her run 30 extra laps as punishment. She immediately learned her lesson; she came 30 minutes early the next day (Roberts, 2007).
The year 1956 saw six Tigerbelles, including Rudolph, headed to the Olympics (Lovett, 1997). She competed in her first ever Olympics at the age of sixteen, and took home a bronze medal for 4×100 relay (International Olympic Committee, 2008). Four years after, Rudolph and the rest of the team proceeded to Pan American Games, and they took home many medals. However, it was in the 1960 Rome Olympics were Rudolph emerged most victorious, a victory that brought her into the limelight.
Rudolph competed in three events: the 100m and 200 m dashes, and the 4x100m relay (International Olympic Committee [IOC], 2008). In the semifinals of the 100m dash, she equaled the world record at 11.3 seconds (IOC, 2008). She then went on to win the final with only 11.0 seconds (IOC, 2008). After three days, she then bagged her second victory for the 200m dash (IOC, 2008). In addition, she finished the 4x100m relay semifinals with a world record of 44.4 seconds (IOC, 2008); she also emerged victorious in the final. However, this victory almost did not happen. Rudolph was ready to receive the baton and run, but the girl who was supposed to pass it did not actually place the baton on Rudolph’s hand (Owens, 1976). In the words of Owens (1976), “the required smooth passing motion, with one girl slowing and the other speeding up, was broken.” By this time German runner Jutta Heine was already ahead (Owens, 1976). Rudolph ran as fast as she could, and finished ahead of Heine. As a result, Rudolph took home three Olympic gold medals.
In 1957, Rudolph maintained her level of success, as she finished a 100m dash in 11.3 seconds, matching the world record (IOC, 2008).. After four days, she surpassed the previous world relay record (IOC, 2008).
Fame and Recognition
Rudolph’s Olympic success made history. She was the “first woman American woman to win three gold medals in one Olympics” (Roberts, 2007). This accomplishment made Rudolph a household name, and she gained fans around the world. She was suddenly catapulted to the spotlight; both local and foreign media considered her as a celebrity. The same year she won in the Olympics, she received two recognitions: United Press Athlete of the Year and Associated Press Woman Athlete of the Year (“Wilma Rudolph Biography,” n.d.).
Rudolph’s running style and natural beauty made everyone sit up and notice. Her height was five foot eleven; her weight was 132 pounds (Owens, 1976). She was very fast, yet graceful. To borrow the words of Owens (1976), “Wilma was willowy, streamlined, and shaped like a girl.” This made international journalists give her several names. The French called her “La Perle Noire,” or “The Black Pearl” (Owens, 1976). On the other hand, the Italians referred to her as “La Gazzella Nera,” or “The Black Gazelle” (Owens, 1976).
However, it was not only her remarkable skill and style of running that won the hearts of many fans. Her simple and down-to-earth personality made people fall in love with her. In places such as “Athens, London, Amsterdam, Cologne, Wuppertal, Frankfurt and Berlin” where she competed, numerous fans came to see her (Owens, 1976). According to Sports Illustrated, police had to be employed to manage the fans in Cologne (Roberts, 2007). On the other hand, Berlin welcomed Rudolph in a different way: admirers swarmed her bus and hit it with their fists to make Rudolph wave (Roberts, 2007). Lastly, her shoes were stolen (Roberts, 2007). On her part, she never failed to smile and greet the crowds that watched her; she also patiently responded to their inquiries (Owens, 1976).
Aside from making history in the field of sports, Rudolph also paved the way for a historical moment in terms of race. Buford Ellington, the governor of Tennessee, wanted to welcome Rudolph home after the Olympics (Roberts, 2007). However, he believed in segregation; Rudolph obviously did not (Roberts, 2007). She refused to show up to a segregated homecoming. Fortunately for her and the town of Clarksville, Rudolph got what she wanted. Rudolph’s homecoming parade and banquet made Clarksville history as the first non-segregated event (Women in History, 2008). Caucasians and African-Americans both had the opportunity to celebrate her Olympic success. Her stand against segregation did not stop there; she also attended city protests until laws for segregation lost their effect (Women in History, 2008).
After her Olympic victory, Rudolph became the recipient of numerous awards. She became the recipient of The Babe Zaharias Award in 1962 (“Wilma Rudolph Biography,” n.d.). In Dakar, Senegal, Rudolph also represented the United States as the Goodwill Ambassador at the Games of Friendship (Women in History, 2008). Also that same year, she joined the Baptist Christian Athletes in Japan (Women in History, 2008). In 1973, she was inducted in the Black Athletes Hall of Fame; the following year, she was included in the National Track and Field Hall of Fame (Roberts, 2007). In 1983, she received two more honors: she was voted in the U.S. Olympic Hall of Fame, while also receiving the Vitalis Cup for Sports Excellence (“Wilma Rudolph Biography,” n.d.). In 1984, she was honored with Women’s Sports Foundation Award (“Wilma Rudolph Biography,” n.d.)
Then there were those honors that were special, in the sense that Rudolph became the first woman ever in history to receive such award or invitation. In 1961, she was the first woman recipient of the Christopher Columbus Award for Most Outstanding International Sports Personality (“Wilma Rudolph Biography,” n.d.). The year after that, she was given the James E. Sullivan award (Lovett, 1997). She was the first American female athlete to be honored as the Sportsman of the Year by European sportswriters (Owens, 1976). Lastly, she became the first woman invited to the 1961 Penn Relays, the New York Athletic Club Track Meet, and the Millrose Games (“Wilma Rudolph Biography,” n.d.).
Life After Retirement
In 1962, at the age of 22, Rudolph retired from track and field (Lovett, 1997). She had several jobs upon her return to Clarksville. She first taught at Cobb Elementary, her alma mater (Women in History, 2008). She then replaced Coach Gray as the track coach of her high school alma mater, Burt High School (Women in History, 2008). Her first collegiate coaching job was in Maine; next, she became the track coach of DePauw University in Indiana (Women in History, 2008; Roberts, 2007). She spoke to many students, as she was often invited as guest speaker in numerous schools and universities (Women in History, 2008). She also became radio show co-host, as well as a sports commentator on television (Women in History, 2008). In 1967, Rudolph was asked by Vice-President Hubert Humphrey to become a part of a sports outreach program for underprivileged kids called “Operation Champ” (Women in History, 2008). Because of this experience, she created the Wilma Rudolph Foundation, a non-profit community sports program for amateurs (Roberts, 2007). In 1977, she released her autobiography entitled “Wilma: The Story of Wilma Rudolph” (Lovett, 1997). The book was eventually turned into a television movie (Women in History, 2008). In 1992, Rudolph became the vice-president of the Baptist Hospital in Nashville (Lovett, 1997).
In July 1994, a few months after her mother’s passing, Rudolph discovered that she had brain cancer (Lovett, 1997). That same year, Rudolph died on November 12th. Five days after her death, a memorial was held at the Kean Hall in TSU. Her funeral was held at the First Baptist Church in Clarksville; all the flags in Tennessee were at half-mast (Lovett, 1997).
Through her accomplishments, Rudolph inspired many other female African-American athletes to fulfill their Olympic dreams. One of them was Florence Griffith Joyner. She followed Rudolph’s footsteps and became the second woman to bring home three gold medals in the 1988 Olympics (Roberts, 2007). Rudolph said, “I thought I’d never get to see that. Florence Griffith Joyner – every time she ran, I ran (“Wilma Rudolph Biography,” n.d.). Jackie Joyner-Kersee was another woman athlete whose life was touched by Rudolph. Joyner-Kersee was an Olympic winner; she has six medals (Roberts, 2007). According to Joyner-Kersee, “She was always in my corner. If I had a problem, I could call her at home. It was like talking to someone you knew for a lifetime” (as cited in Roberts, 2007).
Several places and structures were also named after Rudolph. Her alma mater, Tennessee State University, also rewarded her by naming their indoor track for her (Lovett, 1997). In 1994, a part of Clarksville’s Highway 79 was also named after her. In addition, a historical marker was placed in that very boulevard (“Historical Marker,” 2003). Tennessee State University had built a new dormitory, which was dedicated in her memory on August 11, 1995. Rudolph had a bronze statue of her finished on April 1996; that statue was placed in Clarksville (Lovett, 1997). In 1997, Tennessee Governor Don Sundquist declared June 23rd as Wilma Rudolph day (Women in History, 2008). In its March 2002 issue, Ebony Magazine included Rudolph as one of the “greatest women athletes” (“10 Greatest Women Athletes,” 2002). Lastly, in 2004, the U.S. Postal Service issued a postage stamp in her honor, as recognition for her accomplishments in sports (“Honoring Wilma Rudolph,”2004).
“The triumph can’t be had without the struggle” (as cited in “Wilma Rudolph Biography,” n.d.). These are the words of a woman who initially lived a life of struggle, but triumphantly overcame the odds. She indeed an inspiration to many; her life is a testament to the triumph of the human spirit.
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